A Niche Product for Mass Audiences: The Evolution of Epcot
There has been a great deal of discussion recently about where Epcot is heading
in its fourth decade. The announcement of a Frozen attraction replacing Maelstrom
drew plenty of criticism from devoted fans for changing the spirit of the Disney park. Beyond this particular move, the prevailing anger is really about an ongoing shift away from the original formula. It’s caused fans to build movements like #BelieveinEpcot and similar trends. How did something so promising evolve into what Epcot is today? It’s a complicated question and springs from a push to please as many people as possible.
Looking back at Epcot’s origins, it began in the mind of Walt Disney as a prototype community that would involve forward-thinking corporations and new technologies. Following Walt’s passing, Disney management developed something truly remarkable. Epcot Center was original despite what it owed to past World’s Fairs. Its combination of warm nostalgia for the past and real optimism about our future was inspiring. There was coherence to the pavilions that you could sense while strolling through the park. Idealistic visitors loved the park, but it was more of a passing fancy to others. Disney had created a product that appealed to a passionate niche but needed to attract mass audiences. This contradiction eventually restricted the thematic consistency when one side gained a foothold.
There are similar examples where products that appealed to niche groups were sold to mainstream consumers. The iPod was a dream to music fans who wanted to put their entire catalogs onto a single portable device. It was a financial success, but a company like Apple was looking constantly to grow. They realized that most people weren’t using the iPod like the power users. This led them to shift attention towards devices like the iPhone that served nearly everyone. Despite its great success, the iPod has become a relic that isn’t even part of Apple’s product line anymore. While diehard music fans bemoan the loss of this brilliant device, the rest have moved forward to the next big thing.
Another success story is Netflix, which gave movie fans the ability to rent any DVD by mail without the frustrations of a video store. Cinephiles signed up in droves and became prophets for the rapidly expanding company, which realized the limits of this market. Netflix dove into the streaming world instead while rolling back the availability of physical titles. This move alienated the niche audience, but the forward-thinking approach has made Netflix a very successful company. They recognized that most viewers weren’t looking for a hard-to-find title and would be good with watching popular TV shows. The movie selection is limited, but the convenience of the technology for the average consumer is the key.
Epcot Center was brilliant and successful, but the leaders at Disney lost faith in it. Like Apple and Netflix, they tried to deliver a product that appealed to everyone. Unfortunately, they haven’t had the same creative success as those companies. The reason is a lack of commitment to any single approach. Future World now includes thrill rides like Test Track and Mission: SPACE, but they sit alongside an outdated ‘90s show like Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Spaceship Earth was modified to include newer animatronics and a simpler script, but the descent is little more than a trivial gimmick. Journey to Imagination removed the most universally acceptable ride in the park and replaced it with a shorter, less coherent attraction that’s a shell of its former self. Characters were brought in for overlays to The Living Seas and El Rio Del Tiempo, but there was little commitment to really deliver something outstanding.
The question facing Disney leadership about Epcot is simple: what do they want the park to be? If it’s truly just another “Disney Park,” then the Frozen attraction should be the tip of the, uh, iceberg. (Sorry!) Instead of taking half measures that jumble the theme, Disney should show a commitment to attracting mass audiences to Epcot. This isn’t my preferred approach, but it would show there are clear plans behind the choices. Replacing a popular act like Off Kilter with a lumberjack show does not seem to match any particular theme. Since the decisions appear random, it just lends support to the idea that these choices are purely financial. This is an area where Disney should learn from Apple and recognize that framing the message is essential with any change. If they stepped up and revealed a master plan and how the updates fit within that strategy, it would help convince the doubters these aren’t short-sighted decisions.
The financial prospects for Epcot remain strong because of the draw of World Showcase. The chance to eat, drink, and shop at the international pavilions will always bring solid crowds to the park. The real question is where Future World is heading. Will Disney employ a niche approach to re-design Epcot or go full tilt in the other direction? A hybrid strategy could work and still please both fans and casual visitors. A prime example is Soarin’, which maintains the optimistic feeling through a rousing score and effective technology. It’s popular with the average consumer yet doesn’t contradict the park’s theming. It’s much different than the humorless Mission: SPACE, which is all about the thrill of the launch. Even in that case, the foundation is there for something much greater than the current incarnation.
The original Epcot Center seems miles away from what exists today, and the lack of a consistent theme will probably remain for a long time. While I’d love to see a return of Horizons or the original Journey to Imagination, those plans wouldn’t solve the conundrum for management. Epcot would not fill Disney’s need to attract mass audiences with these updates. My hope is that future upgrades can draw from the optimistic spirit of the original while connecting with modern sensibilities. Could a successful Frozen attraction free up Imagineering to use more creativity in the rest of the park? That scenario is possible, but the change probably won’t happen in the near future. If we can dream it, will they actually do it?
I wonder if it would be plausible to move Epcot in theme and marketing completely to a "travel, cultural, around the world" theme to expand upon the success of World Showcase. Soarin already works in this vein along with Test Track and the Seas. Regardless, Imagination and Energy need complete overhauls to something thematically fitting with the rest of the park, not bridges from the 80s to 2000s vision of the park. Sadly with Avatar looming and a Studios Star Wars and/or Cars expansion borderline more dire, it doesn't look like change is coming to Epcot anytime soon.
Great article but I'm afraid the Maelstrom makeover will be as lackluster as the use of Nemo in Living Seas. The ride building is to small, the ride to short and the transportation method is not fitting the story. Trackless on a "ice" floor would have fitted better.
I think that EPCOT suffers from upper management not being able to see the forest through the trees. There have been changes made here and there with a focus on individual attractions, but you get the sense that there is no big-picture goal.
Nick, your question about the 10-word goal of EPCOT does a great job in showing what I'm getting into with this post. Upper management doesn't really know what to do with EPCOT. They want it to be for mass audiences, but they aren't willing to really develop a grand strategy that takes advantage of its assets. Instead, they're sort of in the middle.
I think the question of what EPCOT will become is very interesting. There are a lot of possible paths that the future of the park can take. I think the more interesting question though, is what does the park NEED to be? Within the context of Disney's other Orlando parks, what void does EPCOT need to fill? What is it's role a a part of the overall story told in the Orlando parks?
Really great post, Dan.
Epcot is simply hard to pin down. It is a mixture of Future World and World Showcase that each has its own goals. So a mission statement will still not fit. The park consists of two large lands unlike other theme parks with a various lands and themes.
I have always felt EPCOT's original concept was a Catch-22. The World's Fair section of the park/Future World, can never stay current, let alone forward looking because technology today advances so quickly that once attraction developers have completed a new attraction, it's already outdated. Also, society had a much more positive, more idealistic view of the future when Walt first conceived of EPCOT. Then there's the sponsorship model that further hinders the development of Future World because corporations are either unwilling to fork over money to redress pavilions or have their own ideas of how they want their company image portrayed.
I agree with Russel, I love EPCOT even now but it is very confused. They need to have a plan... Dan I like your reference to Neflix because for a short time, right during the plan split when everyone went bonkers over the new price structure, I worked there. The streaming is for convenience and the DVD portion is for those cinephiles who want all options. Problem was the people wanted all the options and the convenience of streaming which just wasn't possible. I can explain if necessary, basically has to do with movie rights... Legal stuff.
Just make future world Star Wars. Star Wars is all about futuristic stuff that looks thrown together and weather beaten like the millennium falcon or Epcot today. Stars Wars fits better at Epcot. Keep Epcot as the nerdy park.
We have watched, as frequent visitors from the mid-nineties on, the degeneration of the spirit of EPCOT. It remains our favorite park, though barely. The focus on the natural beauty of gardens and beautifully designed, classic architecture from around the world contrasts nicely with the modern, forward vision of the front of the park. As they lost corporate sponsors over the years, Disney needed a new basis for the pavilions, but did not come up with one. Education isn't enough when vehicles such as Frozen generate billions of $ over time. Over-commercializing this idealistic, park-like spot is what annoys. Walt's utopian view of life should be emphasized here to boost attendance & enjoyment. They just don't want to invest the money at this point on something providing little return financially. As society comes to value nature, ideas, and quality art and design more on a conscious level (for their wellbeing effects,) this should help. Perhaps, as Walt envisioned, EPCOT will come into its own in the future.
Nice piece. However the issue from Disney's perspective is that Epcot is the third highest attended park in the US. There is no reason for Disney to think it is a "mess" because people are coming in droves.
There is nothing futuristic or scientific about star wars. Star wars is "space fantasy" as Lucas himself has called it, set in the distant past. It is based on mythological archetypes and world spirituality/history. This is however what has made it such a success so much more than star trek and other truly sci fi genres. That being said it doesn't really fit into tomorrowland or future world of Epcot, unless it is somehow related to current space exploration, which has not been done unfortunately.
Great article. Well put.
Disney just added New Fantasyland. They're working on Avatarland. They've closed some areas and attractions at Hollywood Studios in preparation for something new. What's missing? EPCOT.
I hope that you're right and Disney really is getting set to focus on EPCOT. At this point, I'd even be okay with them just updating Imagination, Energy, and Wonders of Life (with a possible new theme). If they did one per year and really took the time to do something interesting, it could revitalize those pavilions. I'm guessing the odds of this happening are low, though. They'll get there eventually, but it may be a while.
Thanks for this well-written and timely article. We just visited Epcot last week and it's sad to see the park in its current state. Walt is my hero and I still love Epcot anyway, but there is much work to be done.
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